Indigenous Reconciliation

My Life in Two Indian Residential Schools

Rodney A. Clifton
September 5, 2022
Canadians seem to think they know all about their country’s discredited Indian Residential Schools. They’ve certainly been made painfully aware by governments, Indigenous organizations and leaders, academia and the mainstream media of the official narrative – a litany of sheer horror. But what was life at and around these schools actually like? At a time when “lived experience” is all the rage, the voices of the dwindling surviving number of the many thousands of people who once worked in them have fallen silent. Rodney Clifton is one, and his lived experience includes falling in love with and marrying a Siksika woman. In this clear-eyed and deeply humane account, Clifton bares his heart in recounting his times working as a young man in the residential schools system in Alberta and the Far North.
Indigenous Reconciliation

My Life in Two Indian Residential Schools

Rodney A. Clifton
September 5, 2022
Canadians seem to think they know all about their country’s discredited Indian Residential Schools. They’ve certainly been made painfully aware by governments, Indigenous organizations and leaders, academia and the mainstream media of the official narrative – a litany of sheer horror. But what was life at and around these schools actually like? At a time when “lived experience” is all the rage, the voices of the dwindling surviving number of the many thousands of people who once worked in them have fallen silent. Rodney Clifton is one, and his lived experience includes falling in love with and marrying a Siksika woman. In this clear-eyed and deeply humane account, Clifton bares his heart in recounting his times working as a young man in the residential schools system in Alberta and the Far North.
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The past several months have seen a slowly developing re-assessment of the numerous claims concerning the discovery of unmarked (or even “mass”) graves of missing children at former Indian Residential Schools. The most famous of these claims was the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (Kamloops) First Nation’s announcement in May last year that a ground-penetrating radar survey had located the apparent remains of 215 unidentified children. This “finding” and similar reports from other First Nations caused a nationwide tidal wave of self-recrimination and acceptance of the claims as true, illustrated by a teddy-bear-clutching and kneeling Prime Minister, plus emotional demonstrations, angry protests, vandalism and the still-unsolved desecration or destruction of dozens of churches across the country.

Several recent articles have cast doubt upon these claims. In March, the Dorchester Review published “The False Narrative of Residential School Burials” by University of Calgary professor emeritus Tom Flanagan and retired Manitoba judge Brian Giesbrecht. “There is no record,” they wrote, “of a single student being murdered at a residential school – never mind thousands – in the 113-year history of residential schools. Nor – and this is key – are there any records of Indigenous parents claiming that their children went to residential schools ‘never to be seen again.’” Critically, they noted, “Where excavation has taken place after [ground-penetrating radar] searches, nothing has been found – no human remains, no graves.” In a similar vein, Hymie Rubenstein, a retired professor of anthropology who is devoted to truth and fairness for Indigenous people, created a Substack called The REAL Indian Residential Schools Newsletter to further the reassessment of the accumulating evidence.

Infinite emotion, few facts: Last year’s “discovery” of unmarked children’s graves in an abandoned orchard at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School unleashed a countrywide wave of shame, protests and vandalism or outright destruction of churches, and included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau laying a teddy bear at a former school site. To date, no such human remains have been confirmed or unearthed. (Sources of photo: (top left) Wandering views/Shutterstock; (top right) Paul McKinnon/Shutterstock; (bottom right) The Canadian Press/Liam Richards)

Most prominently, in June the National Post’s Terry Glavin produced a long essay focusing on the exaggerated interpretations and distortions triggered by the various announcements. “Despite the saturation of news coverage,” Glavin asserted, “nothing new was added to the public record.” As he described it, “Not a single mass grave was discovered in Canada last year. The several sites of unmarked graves that captured international headlines were either already-known cemeteries, or they remain sites of speculation, even now unverified as genuine grave sites. Not a single child among the 3,201 children on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 registry of residential school deaths was located in any of these places. In none of these places were any human remains unearthed.” (Emphasis added.)

Still, no mainstream account of which I’m aware has yet challenged the underlying premise of residential schools as consistently awful, rife with disease, neglect and abuse, a sinister system established to expunge Indigenous language and culture and, by forcibly separating Indian children from their unwilling parents, bring about their total assimilation into “white” culture. The National Post’s recent defence of Glavin’s essay (following a number of unconscionable attacks upon his character), was entitled “Residential school horrors need no embellishment” and devoted hundreds of words to reinforcing essentially every aspect of the widely accepted narrative of the schools. This included the declaration that “Residential schools inflicted immense harm on Canada’s Indigenous people” plus the assertion that 70 percent of pupils in some schools suffered sexual abuse.

People across Canada and even around the world seem to believe that Canada’s Indian Residential Schools were an unmitigated failure from the time the first school was supported by government funds in 1883 until the last school was closed in 1996. It has become virtually suicidal for anyone holding public office or in a senior position of any kind, including in universities and the media, to question this narrative. Its establishment in the national psyche has made it easier to propound the even more incendiary claims that children at these schools were not only mistreated but in hundreds or even thousands of cases were murdered, their bodies callously dumped in the dead of night in unmarked graves.

Still the question remains: is the dominant view of Indian Residential Schools true?

Throughout the thousands of articles written on these institutions, there have been few if any stories from people – Indigenous or non-Indigenous – who personally worked in the schools. Surely their experiences are worth considering. Their work, their character and their alleged actions are all being maligned in the mainstream and social media even though their names are rarely, if ever, mentioned. As such, I will briefly tell my story – what I saw with my own eyes and experienced first-hand.

My Lived Experience – The Siksika Reserve

In 1966 I was a 2nd-year student in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta, enrolled in a program called “Cross Cultural Education” designed to prepare teachers to work on Indian reserves and Métis colonies. It included a summer internship, and I was assigned to the Blackfoot Reserve (now called Siksika First Nation) 100 km east of Calgary.

As part of his university Cross Cultural Education program, Rodney Clifton was assigned to an internship at the Siksika First Nation reserve, east of Calgary, where he spent the summer of 1966 living in Old Sun Indian Residential School (bottom) and working with a variety of Siksika and white staff. Most residential school kids went home on weekends.

Beginning in early May I spent four months as a “go-for-it” (a “swamper” as the old-timers called me) in the federal Indian Agency Office. The internship program had me doing a variety of jobs on the reserve so that I would become familiar with Siksika culture, language and people. I resided in the teachers’ wing of Old Sun Residential School, the Anglican school located on the reserve. At the time I moved into Old Sun, students were still in residence, with some taking classes in the school and some being bused to public schools off the reserve. In most cases, the schoolchildren went home on weekends, which was common in residential schools in southern Canada.

Present-day media reports describe residential schools as typically being in isolated locations, generally far from communities, putting the children completely out of touch from their families for years at a time. This implies that it would have been easy to abuse the kids and conceal the nefarious activities. In fact, the Siksika Reserve is only a few kilometres south of the Trans-Canada Highway close to the towns of Strathmore, Gleichen and Cluny and, to repeat, the residential school was on reserve land, so most of the children maintained continuous family connections while in Old Sun. Similarly, the now-infamous Kamloops reserve is situated directly next to the city of Kamloops and the residential school, too, was on reserve land and close to most of the students’ families.

My responsibilities in the Agency Office were to greet people who came for information, answer the phone, type correspondence and reports, and file them. After a few days, I realized that about 50 percent of the employees were Siksika, and the Siksika language was routinely spoken in the Office. In fact, the Siksika employees and visitors were eager to teach me to speak Blackfoot. Often they greeted me in Siksika, and were delighted when I responded.

This was not my first experience with Indigenous people. I had attended a small high school with a few Indigenous students. This was the first time, however, that I was a minority person. I was warmly welcomed by the Siksika, and I formed very positive impressions of the people and the Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers in Old Sun and the Agency Office. It was obvious that the Siksika were holding onto their language and culture while adapting to the broader culture of southern Alberta.

Often, I accompanied the farming instructor when he went on his consulting rounds. On these trips I met many Indigenous ranchers and farmers, and later I helped a few of them brand calves and bale hay. I even ate the cowboy lunch of  “prairie oysters,” calf testicles roasted over the branding fire. I didn’t mind getting cow manure on my jeans as I helped wrestle calves to the ground in preparation for branding, de-horning, castration and vaccination. I had grown up in a small working-class community, so these kinds of physical experiences were not unfamiliar.

One of the Siksika’s continuing cultural highlights was the annual Sun Dance, a sacred ceremony that drew members and guests from across the Prairies and Montana. At left, tipis at the Sun Dance camp in 1938, and at right, a more recent Sun Dance structure. Clifton helped Siksika members set up tipis for the 1966 Sun Dance. (Source of left photo: Glenbow Museum & Archives)

Later in the summer, I helped a group of Siksika men set up the tipis for the annual Sun Dance. People came from as far away as Saskatchewan and Montana to participate in this important cultural ceremony. If the federal government’s goal was to expunge Indigenous culture and wipe out their language and ceremonies, it certainly wasn’t happening on the Siksika Reserve in the mid-60s.

I also helped the federal Indian Agent and the RCMP officers record the names of people who received “treaty money” during “treaty days.” Each family member got $5, except chiefs or counsellors, who received a few dollars more. If the children were not with their parents, the family did not receive money for those kids. Although $5 wasn’t all that much, it was still a  symbolic recognition for the people who lined up patiently to receive their disbursement. No one at the time reported that any children who had attended Old Sun Anglican Residential School or Crowfoot Roman Catholic Residential School were missing. In fact, throughout my subsequent time working on reserves and interacting with Siksika people, I never heard of any children missing from any residential school.

Before the end of June, Mr. Muir, the guidance counsellor, and I travelled around the First Nation to register children for the coming school year. We registered a few hundred children, and their parents signed registration forms agreeing to have their children attend specific schools. The forms were filed at the Agency Office, and the federal Department of Indian Affairs paid for the students’ education if they went to either a residential school or to a public school in a nearby community. The registration activities in which I participated were entirely counter to the current narrative which holds that tens of thousands of Indigenous children were forcibly or even violently removed from their homes and taken to residential schools, causing untold grief and suffering for the children and their families.

The school registration arrangements – including the willing participation and informed consent of the kids’ parents – created the near certainty that if any child went missing, a substantial number of people would quickly know what had occurred. At that time, children were bussed to off-reserve schools by Siksika bus drivers, and surely the bus drivers would have reported any children who were missing to the Chief and Band Counsellors or to the Indian Agent.

While living in Old Sun, I attended church services in the chapel. I also attended a couple of funerals and observed burials at Canon Stockham Anglican cemetery, which lay just a couple of kilometres southwest of the school. It was obvious  that between 80 and 90 percent of the graves were unmarked, which accords with current news reports of unmarked graves on other reserves. But there is a benign explanation. Generally, Indigenous people do not mark graves with head stones, which is a Christian ritual, so most have wooden crosses and small plastic funeral-home markers. Over time, the crosses and markers deteriorated or got misplaced. (The percentage of unmarked graves is about the same today.)

Today’s narrative of Indian Residential Schools as a horrifying tool of cultural eradication includes widespread claims of Indigenous children being forcibly and even violently separated from their parents, as depicted in this painting by Kent Monkman. Clifton personally participated in the 1966 school registration process, obtaining the willing written consent of Siksika parents for their children to attend either Old Sun Residential School or to be bussed to off-reserve public schools while living at home.

That summer I began to date a young Siksika woman, Elaine Ayoungman. We fell in love, were married in 1968 and have been together for almost 54 years. Elaine attended Old Sun Residential School for 10 years. Her parents, Arthur and Nora, had attended the same school for eight years. Neither Elaine nor her parents had heard of children going to school and not returning home. I am sure that if this had happened, most parents would have reported the names of missing children to the school principal, the Indian Agent, the Chief and Band Council, and the RCMP without delay.

Here is a story I heard about 40 years ago that will give readers an idea of the care and respect shown towards parents by Old Sun’s principal. In the early 1950s, Elaine’s older sister, Rosella, was in grade 3 or 4. One morning she vomited into her porridge, and the girls’ supervisor told her that she still had to eat it. When she went home on Friday, Rosella told her parents what had happened. Her father, Arthur, and grandfather met with the principal/priest on Sunday when they attended church and brought the children back to school. On Tuesday morning, less than a week after the incident, the supervisor who had forced Rosella to eat her vomit was on a train back to Ontario where she had lived.

By the middle of August I still had not been paid the stipend that Indian Affairs had promised and I did not have enough money to pay for room and board at Old Sun or to return to university for the next academic year. The young men who eventually became my brothers-in-law joked that now I knew how their ancestors had felt after they signed Treaty 7! By then I knew that this was a typical Blackfoot joke. Fortunately, I received the money in November and I paid my bill at Old Sun and put the remaining money in the bank for my university education.

The Far North

Stringer Hall, the Anglican Hostel in Inuvik, Northwest Territories (top), was Clifton’s (bottom, standing second from left) second experience working in a residential school. He became supervisor of 85 senior boys living in three dorms. They attempted to informally teach him Inuktitut while he taught them English. (Source of both photos: Rodney Clifton)

At the beginning of August I had seen an advertisement in The Anglican Journal that a Senior Boys’ Supervisor was needed at Stringer Hall, the Anglican Hostel in Inuvik, NWT. I applied for the job and got it. A hostel was a residence where children lived while attending a public school. In Inuvik, this was Sir Alexander Mackenzie School, which was situated between the Anglican and Roman Catholic hostels. At the end of August, I boarded a DC-4 at the Edmonton Municipal Airport and flew to Inuvik. The trip took about 11 hours because the slow propeller-driven plane stopped at numerous communities in Northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories.

The Rev. Leonard Holman, the Anglican administrator of the residence, met me at the airport and drove me to Stringer Hall. I knew I was going to be paid $300 per month and I would pay $50 of that for room and board, but I did not yet know what my responsibilities would be. The next day, I learned that I would be on duty for 22 hours a day, six days a week, supervising 85 Senior Boys between the ages of 12 and 21 residing in three dorms. Soon I learned that there were 280 students residing in Stringer Hall, 73 percent of whom were Inuit, 16 percent Dene, and 11 percent Caucasian and Métis.

Unlike at many reserves in southern Canada, the North’s population was widely dispersed and many families still lived a traditional hunting, fishing and trapping lifestyle. Accordingly, all children, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, from small communities, hunting and fishing camps and traplines resided in residences when they attended school. It is also important to know that the Anglican missionaries had evangelized the coastal area where the Inuit lived, while the Roman Catholics missionaries had evangelized the Mackenzie River valley and wooded areas where the Dene lived. When the 85 Senior Boys were in school, I did not need to look after them, of course, but I was responsible for those who were too ill to go to school but not sick enough to be in the hostel’s infirmary or the local hospital.

While the kids generally couldn’t go home for weekends, that does not mean they had no contact with their families. Many kept in touch through “The Delta Roundup,” a CBC radio program that broadcast messages to people throughout the Mackenzie Delta. The radios were turned on in the dorms so that the children could listen for messages as they were settling into bed for the night.

As well, parents who lived or trapped in the Mackenzie Delta would often come by dogsled to Inuvik to trade pelts, purchase supplies and visit their children. Even in the middle of winter, when the temperature was below -30° C and the sun did not rise above the horizon, some parents stayed in tents close to the hostel and some were put up in rooms in the residence. These parents would eat meals in the staff dining room along with their children. During meals they would use their native language. Indigenous staff members who spoke the same language would often sit at the table and participate in the conversation.

Over 70 percent of Stringer Hall’s students were Inuit, 16 percent Dene, and 11 percent Caucasian and Métis, while about half of the staff were Indigenous. Children were able to retain their native languages while learning English. Parents would often come in from remote traplines by dogsled or snowmobile to visit, sleeping either in the hall or outdoors in tents, even in mid-winter. (Source of top and middle photos: Rodney Clifton)

About 50 percent of Stringer Hall’s staff were Indigenous, including two young Inuk women, Annie and Lucy, who were responsible for supervising the junior boys and girls. As readers would probably expect, they spoke Inuktitut to the Inuk children. The Dene and Métis children already spoke English when they first arrived at Stringer Hall.

Soon after I arrived, I made a deal with some of the young Inuit children that I would help them learn English if they would teach me Inuktitut. By Christmas time, they could speak basic English, but all I could say were a few sentences in Inuktitut that were inappropriate for people – especially adults – to say in public.

On Saturdays, the young children would often come to get the hostel’s nursing sister, Rosilind Malack, a 23-year-old nurse from London, England, and me for walks on the Mackenzie River when it was frozen or up the riverbank behind the hostel to go sliding on cardboard. On these walks, the children would encourage me to say the naughty phrases I had learned from them. “Say it Mr. Clifton! Say it!” they would plead. When I said the phrases, the children would laugh and say ,“Funny, funny Mr. Clifton.” The boys would laugh openly, but the little girls would put their hands over their mouths, hang onto each other, and laugh quietly, their dark eyes dancing with glee. 

When Tragedy Struck

Overall, the students in both residences – Old Sun and Stringer Hall – seemed reasonably happy. The only time I knew of junior students wetting their beds in Stringer Hall, which could indicate a degree of distress or trauma, was when they stayed up late on Saturday nights watching movies and drinking soft drinks. More importantly, no children went missing or passed away at either Old Sun or Stringer Hall when I was living in those residences. Yet, I learned of four children from the two residences who died before or after my time there. These deaths need an explanation.

In March 1962, three young girls ran away from Old Sun during a blizzard. They fought their way through the blowing snow to a house where one of the girls lived at a place called “Four Corners,” which was about 1 kilometre from the school. The parents told the girls that they had to walk back to Old Sun while the storm was raging. The girls went out into the blizzard and two of them, Mabel Crane Bear and Belinda Raw Eater, froze to death.

On June 23, 1972, six years after I left Inuvik, three children ran away from Stringer Hall, trying to walk to Tuktoyaktuk, about 150 kilometers to the north. Two boys, Dennis Dick and Jack Elanik, died. For people who have spent time in the North, it seems strange that these children tried to walk to Tuktoyaktuk at a time when the muskeg would be soft and soggy, making walking exceedingly difficult, very cold and wet, even if they were wearing rubber boots. The children also knew that hordes of Arctic insects would be swarming over their unprotected bodies. Most astonishingly, they ran away from the residence only a few days before they would have been flown home for summer holidays.

When tragedy struck: Six years after Clifton’s time at Stringer Hall, schoolchildren Lawrence Jack Elanik and Dennis Dick ran away and died while trying to reach Tuktoyaktuk. They were due to fly home only a few days later. (Source of photo: CBC News)

In both of these tragic cases, the other students, family members, school employees and teachers were shocked and upset about what had happened. In fact, many people were heart-broken by these deaths at a time when grief-counselling was not available to help either children or adults deal with their emotional trauma. While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would much later claim that these children had run away only because of the abuse they had suffered, no one actually knows why they did so. The most likely explanation, in my opinion, is that children often make hasty decisions without clearly thinking through the possible consequences. I never heard that the children ran away because they were being abused in the residences. Of course, all four children were given Christian funerals.

Altogether I spent 15 months on the Siksika First Nation and as the Senior Boys’ Supervisor in Stringer Hall, Inuvik. In July 1967 I returned to Edmonton to continue my university studies, received my B.Ed. in 1969 and then went directly to graduate school. My experience was certainly interesting and rewarding. And although the work as a Boys’ Supervisor responsible for 85 young men was often stressful, I enjoyed working with the students and the other employees, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. I was, in fact, positively impressed with the way the children were being educated to take their place in the developing economies of southern Alberta (Old Sun) and the NWT (Stringer Hall).

Time for a Change of Heart

Many residential schools had adjoining or nearby cemeteries where Indigenous and non-Indigenous parishioners were buried. Graves often did not receive permanent stone markers but wooden crosses that deteriorated over time, resulting in older graves no longer being marked. Clifton attended a number of funerals for Indigenous people, all of which were duly recorded and included a Christian service. (Sources of photos: (top) Regina CTV News; (bottom) Global News)

Most of the residential schools that I visited or heard about had cemeteries close by because the school chapel was also the parish church for local families. Indigenous and non-Indigenous parishioners were often interred side-by-side in these cemeteries. As mentioned above, I have seen that Indigenous parishioners often leave the graves of family members unmarked except for wooden crosses and small plastic funeral-home tags which, over time, deteriorate or are lost. As a result, many cemeteries close to residential schools have numerous unmarked graves. But the deaths themselves were always known and duly recorded, and the deceased were buried after a proper and respectful Christian funeral service.

As a result of my experience and personal observation, I have great difficulty believing that hundreds, let alone thousands, of children died at residential schools and were buried in schoolyards without proper funerals or official documentation. (I remain prepared to change my mind if shown compelling evidence.) These claims have, nevertheless, caused a great deal of trauma among present-day Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians alike, while costing Canadian taxpayers many millions of dollars. I’m afraid that if we do not ferret out the truth, similar claims will likely cost much more in the future.

I am also concerned that when credible evidence is finally published, based on an analysis of the records and physical excavation, and if no Indian Resident School students are confirmed to have been secretly buried in unmarked graves without official documentation, the gulf between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians will become much wider and more difficult to bridge. If this happens, Canada will have drifted even further from – rather than closer to – reconciliation. This would be contrary to what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission claimed to have intended.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in fact, said that truth was necessary for reconciliation. But the rash of recent unsubstantiated claims shows that transparency and verification are also important. If these claims are true, then surely criminal charges should be laid against those who were directly responsible and those who failed to report the crimes. Only then will the truth be known, accountability be provided and appropriate punishment occur. I doubt that any Canadian believes that any people, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, who abused or murdered residential schoolchildren should escape punishment. I also doubt that Canadians believe that innocent people should be condemned and punished.

As well, I think it is time for Canadian governments and the churches, especially those which managed the Indian Residential Schools – the Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Mennonite, and Baptist churches – to speak about the decent work that many of their members did by taking care of and educating these children at a time when few other people were willing to do that work and before Indigenous organizations were ready to take on the responsibilities.

Truth is necessary for reconciliation: Consistent with the original goals put forth by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it is imperative to verify the accuracy and validity of current claims regarding unmarked graves, missing Indigenous children and secretly buried bodies, so that those responsible for the alleged crimes are brought to justice while the innocent are protected. Shown is TRC Closing Ceremonies at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. (Source of photo: Shari Narine/Windspeaker Publication)

Of course it is sad that Indigenous children died at residential schools, but at those times many children died of communicable diseases. Indigenous children were less immune to these infectious diseases than other children. The death of children is heartbreaking, but today our sadness must be tempered by considering the circumstances of the times. We cannot, with honesty, judge the past by the values and resources that we have at the present. Today it is extremely easy to feel virtuous and to behave moralistically without thinking carefully about the hardships that students and school employees alike experienced many years ago.

Finally, the mainstream news media should have worked much harder to validate the lurid claims of deaths and burials before publishing “reports” as if they were true. Instead, some outlets made matters worse by going beyond even what was claimed – such as the New York Times’ outrageous use of the incendiary word “mass” graves to describe unproven allegations of unmarked graves. Similarly, Canadian officials, especially the Prime Minister and the Governor General, should have verified what was claimed before lowering the Canadian flag and proclaiming these unverified claims to be true.

A democracy cannot function for long without a commitment to truth by governments and their officials. A culture of lies coming from the top will surely trickle down. Truth must be re-established as a fundamental value for Canada and its citizens. Without truth, we will not have an honest and fair reconciliation. And there is little doubt that Indigenous Canadians deserve reconciliation, but indeed so do all Canadians.

Rodney A. Clifton is a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. His most recent book is From Truth Comes Reconciliation: An Assessment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report (2021), with Mark DeWolf.

Source of main image: Rodney Clifton.

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